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Debunking the Notion of "Conscripted Singleness"
Way back in October 2021 I reviewed a talk (and subsequent article) by Pieter Valk in which he described single Christians who have not chosen a lifetime of singleness (what he calls, “vocational singleness”) to be “Christian incels”.
Here’s how I summarised the premise of his argument:
Single Christians … can either be “involuntarily celibate” or “voluntarily celibate”. Involuntary celibacy is something you are “forced into”, and it is neither functionally good nor spiritually sustainable. It is experienced as a type of unwanted singleness which an individual will instinctively and understandably seek to resist. It is fitting to call people who have been compelled into this situation “Christian incels”.
After noting the aspects of Pieter’s broader argument that I found some agreement or sympathy with, I continued:
However, I don’t agree with the foundational theological premise which precedes all the applications I do agree with – namely that some Christians have been forced into “involuntary celibacy” by others and now occupy that space against their will and/or better judgement. The reason I do not agree with this is that I do not believe that involuntary celibacy can legitimately exist (either as a real life context or as a mere conception) within the framework of a Reformed biblical sexual ethic.
I’m not going to rehearse my full theological argument as to why I rejected (and continue to reject) his premise that there is such a thing as “Christian incels” or “involuntary singleness”. I’ll let you read it for yourselves. But I raise it again because, in a recently published article, Pieter has restated the same basic premise, but through a different metaphorical framework.
The article is titled, Called, not Conscripted (to Celibacy), and in keeping with the title, this time his distinction between the valuable and effective form of singleness he calls “vocational”, and the impoverished and ineffective form of singleness which he says is not, is made by way of an analogy between enlisted and conscripted soldiers.
“In almost every way, a volunteer soldier is more effective than a conscript… Oddly enough, the same relationship between forced service versus volunteering for a mission applies to celibacy. Christians who embrace a calling to vocational singleness are more effective and have greater endurance, particularly when they’re publicly honored and supported by their faith communities.”
When I initially read this new article I was reminded of that article I wrote back in 2021 and the theological argument I made there. Namely, that:
Suggesting we have been forced [or “conscripted”] into involuntary celibacy… denies both God’s sovereignty in and over your singleness and God’s goodness at work in and through your celibacy. These two things are objective truths that exist independently of our subjective experience of our celibacy. In God’s sight there is no such thing as involuntary celibacy for his unmarried children. And there is no sense in which we should be giving any credence or legitimation to such a concept.
I continue to believe that Pieter’s whole distinction between “conscripted/involuntary” and “enlisted/voluntary” singleness is one which is fundamentally theologically flawed. I also continue to believe that Pieter’s (and indeed, anyone’s) persistent distinction between (his) “vocational” singleness and (my) “non-vocational” singleness is highly problematic from both a theological and pastoral perspective. If you’re interested in a deep dive into why I say that, you might like to take a look at my new book, The Meaning of Singleness.
So in one sense, I might simply respond to Pieter’s latest piece by encouraging you to read what I’ve already said elsewhere on basically the same thing. However, having mulled over his new article for a few weeks now, I’ve realised there are a few specific aspects of it that I think are important to address.
Firstly, it’s a speculative rather than evidenced argument
Pieter begins with data from studies (that he provides references to) about both the effectiveness and personal outcomes for enlisted vs conscripted soldiers. He explains that volunteer armed forces have lower levels of illicit drug use, greater discipline, better education, higher levels of responsibility and are simply more generally effective at their job.
“Forced” soldiers, on the other hand, are less committed, less willing to suffer, tend to give up on the mission more easily, lack consistency and cohesion and are more likely to lead themselves and their compatriots into disaster on the battlefield.
Immediately after outlining these qualitative differences between the outcomes of conscripted vs enlisted military service, Pieter goes on to say:
“Oddly enough, the same relationship between forced service versus volunteering for a mission applies to celibacy. Christians who embrace a calling to vocational singleness are more effective and have greater endurance…”
He goes on to extrapolate about how involuntary Christian singles are less willing to be sacrificial and commit to Kingdom work, more likely to give up when things get tough, and typically shift blame to others for their unwanted situation. On the other hand, voluntary Christian singles are more effective, have more endurance and better training, develop greater expertise, invest more deeply in God’s work in this world, have more personal ownership of their place in that work and (unlike their conscripted compatriots) have counted the cost and are ready to pay it,.
That is, Valk directly asserts that what has been evidenced as true of conscripted vs enlisted soldiers is just as true in application to conscripted vs enlisted singles.
And yet when I asked him:
… this was his reply:
Did you catch that? To his knowledge, there has been no scientific research done comparing the effectiveness of different kinds of singleness (ie. conscripted or voluntary). And yet not only is his whole argument based on the assertion that…
“the same relationship between forced service versus volunteering for a mission applies to celibacy.”
… but he then goes on to make many statements about the greater endurance, effectiveness and commitment of voluntary singles over involuntary singles as if this was either obvious fact or entirely self-evident data.
Pieter’s argument is not a substantiated one. It is speculation. His analogy is not based on actual data. It’s based on his own anecdotal observations.
Friends, this is poor and irresponsible argumentation. It is one thing for an author to suggest that research in this area might help us to understand whether such an analogous correlation does or does not exist. It’s another thing entirely to begin your argument by outright stating that such a correlation does exist, and then “make the case” (to use Pieter’s word in his tweet) based on your own unsubstantiated anecdotal speculation.
Why does this matter? Well, because we should expect more of the people who position themselves as expert leaders in any discourse. That is, we should expect arguments that make truth claims like this to be evidence-based rather than speculative. We should expect theological arguments actually to engage in detailed theological argumentation, not mere assertion.
And it also matters because we should expect more of ourselves as responsible readers who engage with the work of others. In a day and age where we are bombarded with endless information, arguments, and claims, it is incumbent upon us to read thoughtfully, ask questions and test conclusions. It is also incumbent upon us to encourage and equip other people (especially those younger than us) to be doing the same.
And in case you are wondering, yes, I include myself in the expectations of both of those statements.
Secondly, its ignorant and quite frankly, arrogant
I want to ask you to put yourself in the shoes of Sarah.
Sarah is a 66-year-old Christian woman who, despite having longed for marriage her entire adult life, still remains unmarried. She’s single because she’s repeatedly made godly decisions not to pursue relationships with some lovely non-Christian men she’s met over the years. She’s also single because, in his good and sovereign purposes for her life, God has chosen not to bring a spiritually mature and godly unmarried Christian husband into her life. There were a few times when she met someone and thought “maybe, just maybe”. But… no. It was not in God’s plan for her (or for him).
Despite her openness to and indeed desire for marriage, Sarah has always sought to faithfully use her singleness to live for God and serve his people. She knows she hasn’t done that perfectly or consistently (who has?). But she has nonetheless spent decades committed to serving on her church’s welcoming team, cooking meals for families in need, leading a group of women in bible study, giving generously from her single income, investing in the life of the kids and youth at her church, seeking to courageously share the gospel with her work colleagues (in both word and deed) and more.
She’s remained relationally committed to her married friends even when they haven’t always done the same for her, when they’ve forgotten to invite her to things, when nobody has remembered it’s her birthday, and when one by one they’ve moved away. For years she has been the primary caregiver of her elderly parents because her siblings are kept busy with their kids and grandkids. When she’s experienced periods of deep loneliness and grief because of her desire for a husband and children of her own, she’s sought the Lord’s love and comfort.
Again, because she is a fallen (though redeemed) person living in a fallen world, she hasn’t done all these things perfectly or consistently. But she has done them faithfully and lovingly.
Sarah is representative of countless single Christian women I could introduce you to. I could also tell you the story of David, an unmarried man in his 70s, whose story is in many ways different to Sarah’s, but no less a demonstration of faithful Christian life and service in his singleness.
So on one hand we have Sarah. And we have David.
And on the other hand, we have this young Christian man, Pieter, who has lived maybe just over a decade of his adult life as an unmarried person. And we have Pieter telling Sarah and David, and all the other “conscripted” single Christian women and men they represent, that their decades of seeking to live faithfully for Jesus will never be as effective, willing, sacrificial, committed, enduring and deep as his… because he chose to be single and they didn’t.
The sheer ignorance and arrogance of this overwhelm me.
It is not only untrue, but it is unkind. It grieves me so profoundly that Sarah and David and all the other single men and women out there who have sought over many years to love Jesus and his people in faithful obedience and service in their “unchosen” singleness have to read things like this. If I’m to be honest, it doesn’t just grieve me. It also angers me.
Finally, it displaces God’s gift for my choice
Ironically enough, it seems to me that the supposedly more noble, effective, committed and superior form of singleness Pieter speaks about is in danger of being a more innately self-focused form of singleness than that of our friends Sarah and David.
While those two seek to live faithfully in the situation God has assigned them— regardless of whether it is what they would have chosen for themselves—the value of the specific kind of singleness Pieter promotes is not framed by what God has gifted, but by what the individual has chosen.
You see, Pieter argues:
“Humans understand intuitively that people are more willing to sacrifice for a mission they chose.”
And therein lies the problem doesn’t it? None of us “choose” the mission God has given us to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). It’s a mission that has been wonderfully given to us by a gracious God who came so that we might truly know him, to know what it is to love and follow him. It is a mission that has been graciously granted to us so that unworthy sinners become God’s ambassadors in this world. It’s a mission that has been joyously assigned to us in each and every circumstance of our lives because, regardless of whether we have “chosen” those circumstances or not, they are all vocationally significant:
“These are the masks of God, behind which He wants to remain concealed and do all things.” — Martin Luther1
As Christians, we are not committed to God’s mission because we have “chosen” it or the circumstances in which we’ve decided we are willing to undertake it. Instead, we are committed to it because it has been given to us by our good, sovereign and gracious Heavenly Father.
Singleness’ dignity, value and significance does not lie in whether the individual chooses it for themselves. It lies in what God graciously chooses to do in and through our singleness for his purposes and to his glory. In this sense, each and every context of Christian singleness is “called”.
Sarah and David (and the countless singles they represent) are just as capable of being faithful to God, just as capable of commitment to the mission and just as capable of being effective as God’s ambassadors in their “unchosen" singleness, as Pieter and others are in their “chosen” singleness.
After all, Sarah, David and Pieter all have the same saviour who died to redeem them from their sin and rescue them from their slavery to it.
They have the same Spirit who dwells within them, renewing each of them into the image of Christ and transforming them into people who love others as he has loved us.
And they have the same heavenly Father who has adopted them into his family, calls them his children and draws them together towards the same eternity.
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Martin Luther, “Exposition of Psalm 147,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 14.